Revisiting Thomas Sankara’s Vision of Upright People and a Better Africa

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You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.” Thomas Sankara

On December 21 1949, Marguerite Sankara, a young lady from the then Upper Volta gave birth to a calm baby boy. She named him Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara. For several years every day, he arose early in the morning and attended primary school in Gaoua, Southern Burkina Fasso. Upon completing, he proceeded to high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second largest city. Less than fifteen years later in 1983 when he was only 34, Thomas Sankara became the president of République de Haute-Volta (Upper Volta Republic).

One of the first things that he did was to change the country’s name to Burkina Faso. Roughly translated from the country’s Mossi and Dioula languages, Burkina Faso means, ‘land of the honest/upright/incorruptible people.’ In changing his country’s name, Robert Sankara made it clear that there would be zero corruption under his watch. Integrity and servant leadership would reign supreme. If only Africa’s current 54 Heads of State would follow suit, Africa wouldn’t have to keep scurrying to China and the West with a begging bowl in her hands.

After laying out a very clear integrity vision, Thomas Sankara refused to accept the norm of African presidency being synonymous with riches. He continued living the same simple life he had lived before he became president and demanded the same from his cabinet ministers. He was not just being sentimental when he said severally that ‘I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.’

How do you want to be remembered? However you want to be remembered, invest your heart and days into that. Don't allow anybody, especially politicians, to mess up with your purpose and mission.

After all is said and done, after the campaign rhetoric has disappeared with the sunset, after your President’s motorcade has sped by you with sirens blaring, after your parliamentarians have hurled words at each other, after you have frothed at the mouth in passionate defense of your preferred political leaders, are you better of? Is there more food on your table? More jobs for the youth? If the answer is no, then your politicians are serving their bellies, not addressing your worries.

These are the issues that Thomas Sankara sought to address. Disgusted by the presidential opulence that he found in place, he sold most of the government fleet of high-end Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5, which was the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time, the official service car of the ministers. Come to think of it, why do ministers and other high ranking government officials have to drive in fuel guzzlers that are bought by tax payers who often can’t afford to buy even a bicycle?! It is morally wrong, economically wrong and environmentally wrong for government officials to drive big cars when most of their people cannot even get small jobs or run small businesses.

Thomas Sankara also converted the army's provisioning store in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso's capital) into a state-owned supermarket that was open to everyone. This became Burkina Faso’s first ever supermarket. While State-run businesses rarely survive or flourish, the symbolism of this gesture was very powerful. A country’s resources should be accessible to all. Purchasing power is at the heart of this accessibility. There is something drastically wrong in a country where most of the people have no money to pay for most of the things they need.

‘I can hear the roar of women’s silence.’

When he said these words, Thomas Sankara was deeply concerned about the plight of women in his country. So he took action. Throughout his presidency, he promoted women’s rights with passion. Sankara's government included a large number of women. Improving women's status was one of his explicit goals, an unprecedented policy priority not just in West Africa but the world. His government banned female circumcision, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception. The Burkinabé government was also the first African government to publicly recognize AIDS as a major threat to Africa.

President Sankara could strum the guitar with the same poignant melody with which he spoke. When he wasn’t plucking the warm guitar strings or chatting with the masses, he could be found on his motor bike rambling along the streets of Ouagadougou. This kept him in touch with the ordinary people and he was able to feel their pain; experience their struggles and behold their dreams.

Thomas refused to keep quiet in the midst of the injustice that was swarming around his country and continent. He loathed corruption with a passion, promoted reforestation and embraced policies that would enhance both education and health. Under his tenure, he oversaw the planting of ten million trees. This was long before Kenya’s Wangari Maathai popularized tree planting through the billion tree campaign and other similar campaigns.

There is a sentence in Burkina Faso’s anthem that fully captures a powerful tool that Africans can use to drive forward the continent.

Les engagés volontaires de la liberté et de la paix’.

This sentence is part of ‘Une seule Nuit’ the national anthem that was written by Thomas Sankara himself. It means, ‘the volunteers of liberty and peace.’

Volunteering entails taking the initiative and taking action. There are more than one billion people in Africa. If only 1% of these people initiate positive change across the continent, there will be an unstoppable wave of change. This wave will result in much more integrity, liberty, peace and prosperity.

On October 15, 1987 Thomas Sankara was killed with twelve other officials in a coup d'état that was organised by Blaise Compaoré, his former colleague.  

Most of the time, your biggest enemy is right there in your mirror. The person who stares at you when you look in the mirror can either build you or destroy you; pull you up or pull you down. This applies to African countries. They are often their own worst enemies. Even when external forces have been responsible for our downfall as Africans, it is often because they found collaborators right here in Africa. Take slavery for instance, it would never have thrived if a few greedy Africans had not been willing to sell of their fellow Africans. Even though slavery is largely annihilated, many of our African leaders continue to sell us off through pervasive corruption and incompetent governance.

Corruption continues to shackle Africans to poverty that runs deeper and wider than it did during the independence years of the 1960s. That’s why there is dire need for Les engagés volontaires de la liberté et de la paix. Volunteers of liberty and peace. Remember, liberty and peace cannot grow and thrive in a land of abject poverty and widespread joblessness.

One week before Thomas Sankara was killed, he said that, ‘while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.’ These words echoe the powerful message in the words of Victor Hugo, the nineteenth century French Poet, ‘No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.’

Here is one of the ideas whose time has come:

Real power belongs to the one billion Africans who stare back at Africa when she looks in the mirror. They have the power to vote for upright leaders; power to uproot war and plant peace; power to buy African products and build Africa’s economy; power to restore Africa’s degraded lands and ecosystems; power to be the change they want to see.

You, my fellow Africans, are so powerful. Use your power.

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